TV-show parody feeds stereotype
By DeWayne Wickham
As soon as Charles Stith got a look at the Joe Schmo 2 ad that ran in USA TODAY last week, he fired off a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
"I found the ad unconscionable and offensive," the United Methodist minister and former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania said in his missive to Michael Powell, the FCC chairman. Stith said Spike TV, the cable television network that caters to men, crossed the line when it captioned one of the show's cast members in the ad — a black woman — as "The Bitch."
Labeling her in this way, Stith argued, "is defaming of African-American women and represents an unfair stereotype that disadvantages them by characterizing them as difficult, unreasonable, treacherous persons not to be trusted."
It's also something the FCC, which regulates broadcasters' use of the public airwaves, has no control over. Even the show's use of "The Bitch" label in its season premiere broadcast last week does not fall under the purview of the FCC.
While the content of print publications is correctly protected by the First Amendment, it is subject to self-regulation. Asked about USA TODAY's policy, Steve Anderson, the paper's director of communications, said it has three criteria for rejecting an ad: It raises legal concerns, is libelous or is patently offensive. The Spike TV ad, which also ran in Entertainment Weekly and US Weekly, apparently didn't meet any of those tests. And it didn't set off any alarm bells at Spike TV.
No intent to offend
"Joe Schmo 2 is a satire on the conventions of reality television," said Robert Pini, the spokesperson for Spike TV. "All of the characters in the series are parodies of the genre, and they are not meant to offend or demean any specific race or gender."
Though there is no reason to believe that Spike TV had bad intentions when it generated the print ad, labeling a black woman "The Bitch" is likely to make as many blacks bristle as laugh. Such a characterization in what is popularly called "the mainstream media" comes in the wake of years of protests over the increasingly misogynistic lyrics of some rap artists — songs that have sparked a mix of anger and soul-searching among black women, who are largely the focus of the music.
In April, the rap artist Nelly was forced to cancel a bone-marrow drive at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, because of the protests of students who were offended by the lyrics and images of one of his music videos.
The negative portrayal of the lone black woman in the Joe Schmo 2 ad also comes just a few months after the sole black woman on The Apprentice, NBC's hit reality show, was saddled with the same label. In the case of Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the tag came from other contestants. They all were competing for the chance to work for mogul Donald Trump.
In the Joe Schmo 2 ad, the black female character is named Ambrosia, a parody of The Apprentice femme fatale who came to be known simply as Omarosa.
And that's the rub.
"The stereotype of the black woman as being cunning and back-stabbing has gone from being implicit to being explicit" with the Spike TV ad, Stith said. That the cable network's executives and the creative folks in its advertising department didn't anticipate a hostile reaction is understandable. Far too many people in positions of power lack a sensitivity to the subtleties of this nation's racial divide.
It is one thing for a female competitor on a reality show to call another one a "scheming, conniving bitch," but it's something else for a television show to brand a black woman with that ugly handle.
Spike TV could have called Ambrosia "The Vixen." It could have branded her "The Siren" or "The Shrew." But instead it chose to label her "The Bitch" — a designation that might bring it more grief than viewers.
DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA TODAY.